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- Registered: 04-May-2017
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I've been lurking on these forums for about a year now and since I have made the switch to Colemak full-time, I thought that it was past time that I created an account and shared my experience.
I'm no stranger to sub-optimal layouts and hardware; my first computer was a ZX Spectrum (the rubber key kind). I learnt to touch-type QWERTY in secondary school on an electric typewriter in the early 1990s. We still had BBC Bs (poor keyboards) and a smattering of Acorn Archimedes (much better), and I had an Amiga 500 at home on which I did my homework and coding for fun. The keyboard there was not fantastic, but you could at least touch-type.
So, I've been a QWERTY touch typist for about 25 years. I'm an academic in the physical sciences so I write and code a lot. I had never really measured my speed until about 18 months ago when I started looking at alternative layouts. At that time, I could average 80 to 90 WPM on a typing test. I imagine that my real (working) average was lower due to the on-off nature of real-world typing; sadly, papers do not come into existence in one continuous stream! :)
A bit of additional context. Seven years ago I moved from rubber-domes to mechanical keyboards and have really gone down that particular rabbit hole: my original Majestouch 2 keboards are long sold and I am currently typing on a custom-build and programmed 60% keyboard. The transition to Colemak has taken place over the past six months and in parallel with a conscious effort to improve my workstation ergonomics, of which moving smaller mechanical keyboards and reverting to a trackball have been the other two major changes.
I kept a diary of my transition, which I will summarise and comment on here.
October 2016 to December 2016: Continuing to use QWERTY at work and at home on 60% boards. Experimenting with the Dvorak layout.
I did not approach this in a structured way. I printed out the Dvorak layout, changed the keyboard settings and attempted to type as before. I got frustrated quickly. In retrospect, I think that I could have made a go of Dvorak if I had approached it as I ended up approaching Colemak, but that was not the case here. I decided to analyse how I was typing in QWERTY and to re-assess whether I really wanted to seriously try an alternative layout.
After critically observing my typing with eyes down, I discovered to my surprise that I had long since moved away from "proper" touch-typing technique. I was only using 6 fingers to type; my QWERTY "home" position was SEF (left hand, ring to index) and JIL (right hand, index to ring). In addition, my wrists were making very odd turns to accomplish the swift execution of many common words.
I also noticed that I was looking down in order to re-home myself. I really had not previously noticed that I was doing that. It was only quick glimpses, but that made me realise that my typing, while fast enough (80 WPM bursts) for work, was not an optimal technique and was not actually true touch typing!
I resolved to (a.) (re-)acquire good typing posture and technique, (b.) to approach it in a systematic fashion, i.e. to train properly. I figured that if I was essentially going to re-learn to touch type I may as well go with a more ergonomic layout. Several studies on-line (eg the analysis on the carpalx website) showed that Colemak was a big improvement over QWERTY, but was not likely to be a huge shock to the system. I therefore decided to go with Colemak.
January 2017: QWERTY by day, Colemak by night
I resolved to train Colemak at home 1 to 1.5hr a day on keybr.com without fail. My wife was very understanding. :) I kept to QWERTY at work; I needed to stay productive. I also decided that after 2 weeks I would re-assess the situation based on the progress of my measured typing speeds. Thankfully, as a scientist it was easy enough to analyse the speeds and extrapolate forward. This really helped as I was a able to set realistic targets and stay motivated.
If anyone is thinking of learning; keybr.com is a really good place to start. It starts with a small subset of letters and then adds more when your average speed gets high enough.
Week 1: a slow start. Keyboard: custom 60%, Gateron Greens. Keybr set to lower case only, no punctuation.
Day 1: 20/40 WPM average/peak (letter store: eaintor)
Day 2: 20/38 WPM average/peak (letter store: day 1 + ls)
Day 3: 25/38 WPM average/peak (letter store: day 2 + u)
Day 4: 25/35 WPM average/peak (letter store: day 3 + dh)
Day 5: 39/65 WPM average/peak (letter store: day 4 + c)
Day 6: 39/65 WPM average/peak (letter store: day 5 + ym)
Day 7: 44/70 WPM average/peak (letter store: day 6 + p)
Comments for week 1: concentrated on accuracy and good technique. The reversal of the fingers responsible for "r" and "s" is the only consistent sticking point. It is really nice to be using my little fingers for "a" and "o". Having the backspace where the (useless) capslock key used to be is a major improvement. No obvious deleterious effects on my QWERTY at work.
Week 2: hitting the wall. Keyboard: custom 60%, Gateron Greens. Keybr set to lower case only, no punctuation.
Day 8: 40/50 WPM average/peak (letter store: day 7 + gw)
Day 9: 40/70 WPM average/peak (letter store: day 8 + fbvkxzq)
Day 10: 45/71 WPM average/peak (letter store: only j excluded)
Day 11: 45/59 WPM average/peak (letter store: only j excluded)
Day 12: 47/62 WPM average/peak (letter store: all alphas)
Day 13: 48/77 WPM average/peak (letter store: all alphas)
Day 14: 50/78 WPM average/peak (letter store: all alphas)
Comments for week 2: this week required a great deal of determination and discipline as improvements here were slow. It took four days of training to reach a consistent 40 WPM average across all keys to allow the inclusion of "j" into the letter store. Improvement steady but slow.
No major deleterious effects on my QWERTY at work, apart from wanting to use the Capslock as a backspace occasionally and getting "r" and "s" mixed up once or twice(!)
I was very pleased by my Colemak progress at this point. A few other things happened in parallel during this week:
- I replaced the right control with a compose key;
- I moved my function layer key from left alt to right alt;
- I added trackball on the left of my keyboard so that when I felt fatigue from using the mouse on the right I could switch over;
- I added a foam wrist rest (for use only in pauses).
At this stage I re-evaluated. I considered a 50 WPM average sufficient to justify further training. I switched my home computer to Colemak (by reprogramming the keyboard, the OS is permanently set to QWERTY), but maintained QWERTY at work.
Week 3: typing out "War of the Worlds" in keybr. Keyboard: custom 60%, Gateron Greens. Keybr now allows upper/lower case, punctuation and numbers.
Day 15: 35/53 average/peak (entire keyboard)
Day 16: 40/53 average/peak (entire keyboard)
Day 17: 43/60 average/peak (entire keyboard)
Day 18: 44/62 average/peak (entire keyboard)
Day 19: 47/65 average/peak (entire keyboard)
Day 20: 48/68 average/peak (entire keyboard)
Day 21: 56/79 average/peak (entire keyboard)
Comments for week 3: typing out novels as typing training is a great idea. I forget which forum I found that tip on, but it really helps with motivation - now you have an excuse to spend time reading books you enjoy! :)
I now use the shift key on the opposite side to the alpha I am pressing. I never did this correctly before; I always used the right shift. The first three days were difficult due to the inclusion of upper case, punctuation and numbers. This is where the familiarity with QWERTY really helps - most of the punctuation is in the same place! Even the semicolon key gave little trouble.
Numbers are in a function layer pseudo-keypad accessible from home row resting position, so no problem there.
Overall, I am no longer having to think about where keys are at all. If I make a typo, it is usually down to trying to think too far ahead or when there's a lot of dense punctuation.
On the downside, I am having major issues with keeping up QWERTY and Colemak in parallel. I'm a bit surprised that I am now having to "hunt and peck" in QWERTY.
Although I am still a bit faster in QWERTY at this point, it is obvious that Colemak is more comfortable. My model of improvement (a log curve) suggests that I will reach my original QWERTY speed of 80 WPM in about three month's time. I make a major decision here, one I did not think would actually happen at the beginning:
I switch to Colemak at work.
This has been a permanent change. Even my phone is set to Colemak. I only need to use a QWERTY keyboard when using one of my retro computers, but this is hardly a problem.
February to May 2017: faster than before, and much more comfortable. Well worth it.
I stopped formal training with keybr.com at the end of February after reaching a 89/110 WPM average/best. At that point I had typed out all of "War of the Worlds" and "1984" and was using Colemak quite productively at work and at home. In summary, the improvement was approximately linear over that time from 56/79 WPM to 89/110 WPM. A recent measurement for interest's sake yielded 80/126 over a 15 min sample. I am more than happy to have an average reliably in the 80s - this is more than fast enough for my purposes. :)
I am very happy that I have made the change. I was beginning to suffer from wrist and back pain at the end of 2016 and I am sure that improving my technique, posture and workstation ergonomics is the reason that this is no longer the case. While Colemak is obviously not the only reason for this improvement, it has been a major part of improving my technique. The fact that it is clearly more comfortable and less strain on my fingers and wrists is a bonus.
I have some general observations and tips that might be of use to anyone considering switching. These are, of course, viewed through the lens of my own experience, so your mileage may vary:
- I tried to keep QWERTY and Colemak in parallel and did not try transitional layouts like Tarmak. From reading other people's posts and my own experience, this is probably doing it the hard way. I expect only going cold turkey would be more difficult; that's what I tried to do with Dvorak and it really did not work for me.
- Training is vital. It is a major investment to put aside an hour a day if (like me) you commute and have a busy job. It is, however, totally worth it. A structured approach together with metrics will keep you motivated, show you where improvements need to be made and on target.
- Typing out novels once you reach a workable speed. This is a fantastic idea. I think most of the typing tutors will let you import text files to do this. :) This also helps beat "the grind" of training.
- If you are going to try learning Colemak (or any other non-QWERTY layout), I would strongly recommend that you consider assessing the ergonomics of your workstation at the same time. An adjustable chair, wrist rest and good posture are all incredibly important. It is not worth risking permanent injury for the sake of avoiding a couple of hours' honest assessment and adjustment.
- If budget allows, acquire a good keyboard. What this means to you will vary. For me this is a 60% keyboard with mechanical switches, but that doesn't mean it is the only solution. There are many good-quality rubber-dome keyboards, for instance (eg Microsoft Comfort Curve).
- Keep a training diary. This does not have to be long, complicated or involved. Note down your average/best WPM for the day along with a couple of comments on what you did, what has got better / easier, and what was difficult. You will be amazed at the difference this makes to keeping you motivated! :)
I know this has been a long (first) post, but I hope it has been interesting and/or useful. Please feel free to ask me any questions you might have; I'll be more than happy to answer them.
All the best,